A Conservative peer - also a former brewery boss - has been labelled “ridiculous” for blaming Britain’s Muslim community for the collapse in pub numbers.
During a House of Lords debate, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who was a director of Marston’s brewery in Burton Upon Trent for 12 years, said that “socio-economic factors”, including a growing number of teetotal Muslims, were more responsible for dwindling pub number than “rapacious” pub chains.
Speaking in defence of the major pub chains, the former MP said: “In areas of Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham the increase in the Muslim population who don’t drink leads to many pub closures. It is exceptionally hard for a publican who has put 10 years of his life into trying to build up a business to accept the inevitability of these tides of history.”
His comments were quickly condemned by Muslim rights campaigners. Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, an interfaith and anti-extremist organisation, said: “It is quite ridiculous to blame Muslims for the closure of pubs when in fact the consumption and marketing of alcohol has also changed over time. What is also clear is that some pubs have been successful and others have not been able to generate customers and clients.”
Mr Mughal, who runs the Tell Mama helpline for reporting anti-Muslim attacks, added: “To blame Muslims for this is ridiculous and also assumes that all Muslims do not drink. Some do and still regard themselves as Muslims, so the issue is far more complex than this banal statement.”
Nasima Begum from the Muslim Council of Britain agreed. She said: “It is surprising and disappointing for Lord Hodgson to scapegoat Muslims for the failure of his business. What next? Muslims to be blamed for a fall in pork scratchings sales? We have come to a stage where it is easy for those in prominent positions to make their points at the expense of Muslims. This will only reinforce a perception of bias and disconnect with the wider society of politicians generally, and his party in particular".
The claim came during a House of Lords debate on whether to force big pub companies, known as PubCos, to grant more freedom to landlords. It follows a vote last month which saw MPs support a cross-party amendment to the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Bill.
It amendment allows for pub tenants to opt out of being required to sell only alcohol provided by their pub company and follows a long-running campaign by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). The body’s research found that a pub company have been charging tenant landlords as much as £150 for an 11 gallon keg of lager, compared with a wholesale price of £84.
In November shares in the two biggest pub chain companies, Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns, both fell steadily after the vote, which will affect the 20,800 of Britain's 48,000 pubs that are subject to beer "ties". Critics say the current deal leaves many publicans earning less than the minimum wage.
During the House of Lords debate business minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said the Government would accept the change in the legislation, but Lord Hodgson said he was “very disappointed” the Government was not going to step in to overturn the Commons defeat. He said the issue of pub closures was not “simple and straightforward” and that the pub sector was “under serious strain”.
Lord Hodgson told the Independent that his critics were being “slightly over sensitive” and that his speech listed many different reasons why British pubs were in decline, including issues over business rates, the “de-industrialisation of Britain”, tougher licensing laws and the influx of cheap alcohol from supermarkets. He said: “This is not a criticism of Muslims. I thought nearly all Muslims don’t drink, but maybe some do. And my speech referred to many serious problems for pubs.”
Local Birmingham activist Wahid Anwar, a member of the Islamic Society of Britain, supported the Tory peer though. He said: “I don't think he was 'blaming' Muslims. He was pointing out a socio-economic factor. As you are no doubt aware, drinking alcohol in forbidden in Islam. That is not to say that there are no Muslims who drink, but they generally refrain from doing so in such public establishments.”
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